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Don't Sacrifice Cels for CGI

Philip Burrowes

Sorry, this one’s for the geeks in the audience. Next time it’s an article on hip-hop: scout’s honor.

Who can forget the ballroom scene in Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” where Belle and Maurice-to-be dance to Mrs. Potts’ ballad? I certainly can’t, but not because I find it especially beautiful (or even because of its subsequent parody by “The Critic”), but because its use of cel characters drawn over the computer-generated background appears gaudy. Simply put, use of obviously different animation techniques is no better than poor matting or gratuitous use of stunt doubles. Computer-generated imagery (CGI) is only a lesser approximation of the real thing, even if the real thing is a drawing.

None of the three animated features which came out this summer grasped that, although some did better than others. “Atlantis: Lost Empire” showed Disney had learned not to texture models too realistically, but the film’s Leviathan depiction still contrasted sharply with the cel characters. “Shrek” got away with being totally computer-generated because most of the characters weren’t humans. “Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within,” on the other hand, was consistently bogged down by the aesthetic shortcomings of “realistic” humans.

Only Osmosis Jones -- which was not totally animated -- used the visual distinctness of CGI to its advantage. Although one of the principal characters -- Drix, the cold relief pill (don’t ask) -- is computer generated, the technique is usually relegated to bodily tissue that did not display sentience, distinguishing them from the title character and his microscopic costars. Like Atlantis, the vehicles were CGI, something forgivable for the sake of both efficiency and mercy; would you want to draw thousands of cars moving at one time?

CGI is admittedly preferred when dealing with multiple, similar objects. “Oliver and Company” showcased a computer-generated New Yawk gridlock and his since been followed by wildebeests in “The Lion King,” the Hydra in “Hercules,” Huns in “Mulan,” and Tarzan’s jungle. All these cases no doubt significantly cut down on production time while at the same time not sacrificing appearance.

The small screen has gotten into the act too, but despite traditionally having a very uniform style, televised cartoons have been as equally hit-and-miss as their theatrical counterparts. On one end of the spectrum lies “The Real Adventures of Johnny Quest,” which very gratuitously threw computer animation into nearly ever episode; imagine “The Simpsons’ Treehouse of Terror VI” but by Hanna-Barbera. Currently, Futurama’s New New Yawk features extensive CGI, which is almost indistinguishable from the work on cels. In between those two poles lie too many (mostly superhero) cartoons to mention.

Another spectrum exists of totally CG televised cartoons, one which compares favorably with either pure cel or combinations. The worst recent CG TV production was probably “Voltron: The Third Dimension,” which again dealt with animating humans. Still, by virtue of having decent framerate and inherently consistent animation, it was visually superior to its contemporary competitors. Mainframe Entertainment was the Spider-Man to “Voltron”’s Venom, outshining such gems as “The Tick” and “The New Superman Adventures.”

Before anyone rushes out to proclaim CGI the wave of the Saturday morning future, let’s remember what really gives a show superficial quality: the money. “Reboot,” the first remotely successful CG show, generated $550,000 per half-hour episode for Mainframe in 1997. Just a year later, cel-based shows were being sold for less than a fifth of that, with Nelvana “leading” the pack at exactly an eleventh of Mainframe’s price tag. It would be ridiculous to expect equivalent results from productions with wildly different resources.

More equitable comparisons reveal that CGI is still visually inferior to cels. “Prince of Egypt” had to rely on cel-based touch ups when generating the parting of the Red Sea. “Antz” tried to make the light focused through a magnifying glass far more complex than it had to be. Even Pixar ran into trouble with “Toy Story” trying to, yes, render humans.

Let’s face it, if a medium can’t depict humans without people complaining, it’s in trouble. Cel, meanwhile, has been housing humans faithfully since Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and -- despite Ralph Bakshi’s rotoscoping -- hasn’t improved much since. The last attempt at “revolutionizing” cel animation was “Titan A.E.,” and its novelty was merely using wisely under-textured CGI (something “The Iron Giant” almost perfected not two months later). Nonetheless, since its legitimization through Luxo Jr., no CG movie has compared favorably to subsequent cel classics like “Hotaru no haka,” “Aladdin,” or “An American Tail.” As much as Moore’s Law intrinsically pushes the CG industry to improve, the grass on “A Bug’s Life”’s side isn’t any greener than that of Mononoke Hime, literally.